Dom Paschal Scotti, the author of the recently released Galileo Revisited: The Galileo Affair in Context (Ignatius Press, 2017), is a monk at Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island. He was ordained a priest in 1989 and teaches at his monastery’s prep school, Portsmouth Abbey School, in the History and Humanities departments. He has a Licentiate in Canon Law (J.C.L) from Catholic University of America. Besides various journal and encyclopedia articles, he has a written a study of the Edwardian English Catholic editor, Wilfrid Ward.
He recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about the continuing fascination with Galileo, why he wrote his book, and why context—historical, cultural, philosophical—is so vital to understanding the “Galileo Affair”.
CWR: “Galileo,” you write at the start of your book, “is one of those iconic figures in history for whom there is endless fascination.” What are some reasons for that fascination? And have there been different reasons over the centuries?
Fr. Scotti: Galileo is fascinating for many reasons. First, for his powerful personality and extraordinary rhetorical ability that not only impressed his contemporaries (it was, after all, an age that valued both) but even impresses later generations. He is not just a great scientist, but the first celebrity scientist (a type with which we are very much familiar) over whom princes and popes fawned, a masterful self-promoter and brilliant writer whose works are truly works of art, literary masterpieces.
Second, because his story is just so dramatic: he is not only the revealer of a whole new world, who transformed our view of the cosmos (even in his lifetime was compared with Columbus), but his story is larger than life both in its spectacular rise and in its spectacular fall. It is Greek tragedy really. And like any Greek tragedy its hero’s flaws, his hubris, are a key part of his failure.
Third, because his story intersects with so many of the great fault lines of modernity such as the conflict between the desires of the individual and the needs of the community, the tensions between faith and reason, and the difficulties of living in a world were change is ever-happening and boundaries seem to be fluid and even disappearing. While there have been other reasons for this fascination that reflect later historical periods (e.g. as a martyr of science), these seem perennial.
CWR: How did you first become interested in Galileo and how have you gone about researching his life and times?
Fr. Scotti: I never begin writing with a thesis, only a desire to understand something. Eighteen years ago I wrote about the Galileo Affair in one-off article to understand what really happened. I was asked to give a lecture on the topic in 2012 so I revised the article, and since I had done so much work to revise it I decided that I might as well write a book about it. During my free hours between my teaching and religious obligations I began at the beginning and worked to the end, reading as much as I could and revising as I went along. And to make it more attractive to the intelligent general reader I would have my brother Tom (who is not an academic but involved in finance) read and comment on chapters as I finished them. All in all, it took about a year and a half to write.
CWR: Two words stand out in the title and subtitle of the book: “revisited” and “context”. Why the need or desire to revisit the Galileo Affair? And what are some key aspects of the context mentioned? How has lack of context warped or damaged how Galileo is understood and represented today?
Fr. Scotti: The Galileo Affair needed to be looked at again (revisited) because it is one the great events, climactic events even, in European history and because it has so often been used polemically and ahistorically. History is all about context (or as one scholar has said more awkwardly, it is “context-dependent”), and the fuller and richer the context, the better the history. While all histories of the Galileo Affair have supplied context, it has often tended to be uneven or selective, and none of them have given it as extensively as I have. I think that this particularly damaging in reference to the philosophical/intellectual currents of the time, to the long history of the relationship of Christianity and science, and of the inner dynamics of papal Rome and the Roman Curia.
CWR: The first of the five chapters focuses on Italy. What are some basic facts about Italy during the age of Galileo that are of importance and are likely not known by most people today?
Fr. Scotti: Historians have had this strange tendency to end the Italian Renaissance far earlier than they should, generally with the beginning of the Reformation (1517) or the Sack of Rome (1527), and so have tended to ignore the Italy of Galileo’s day, often seeing it as a time of stagnation and decay (economic, intellectual, spiritual and moral), under the heel of Spain and the Inquisition. In fact, this period from the Peace of Cateau-Cambésis of 1559 until the late 1620s was seen by contemporaries as one of the greatest periods, if not the greatest period, in Italian history. It ended sixty years of intermittent warfare (the Italian Wars) between the major European powers that ravaged the peninsula and ushered in the longest period of peace that Italy had seen in many centuries. And with peace came prosperity and all that follows from that. This negative view of Italian history was due, in a large part, to the historians of Italian unification (and their supporters) to whom the dominance of Spain and the Church could never be a good thing, and it still influences our thinking about Italy in Galileo’s time.
CWR: What were some of the philosophical movements and theological premises that shaped Galileo’s thought? What was unique or notable about Galileo as a thinker and astronomist?
Fr. Scotti: At this time you have not only the continued dominance of Aristotle (which was very far from a spent force) but also a revived Platonism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism, all of which influence Galileo, especially contemporary Platonism with its emphasis on mathematics. While Skepticism was also a growing movement, that was entirely alien to his mindset. Galileo was not particularly well-read in theology (there are a decent number of devotional books in his library but not much theology), but he certainly accepted the Catholic worldview with a strong belief in a creation that reflects a good and rational Creator. Galileo was a great believer in the power of reason (some might say naively so) and, optimistically, that there was still so much more to know about this world. That being said, he could also be somewhat proprietary about his discoveries and even small-minded and contemptuous about the discoveries of others.
CWR: How was astrology understood and used during Galileo’s time? What role did it play in the Galileo Affair?
Fr. Scotti: Astrology was believed by most people and was even part of the university curriculum, where it was particularly needed by those studying medicine. This was, however, a non-deterministic astrology where the stars influenced but do not determine realities. People forget that Ptolemy was not only the author of the Almagest (the great book on astronomy from antiquity) but also of the Tetrabiblos (the great book on astrology from antiquity). Galileo himself was a master astrologer and known as such.
Astrology plays a part in the Galileo Affair since at the very time Galileo is getting his great book The Dialogue on the Chief World Systems through the final phase of approval in Rome a major crisis develops over a prediction of the death of Pope Urban VIII (who was a great believer in astrology) which intensifies an already heightened sense of crisis in Rome. Urban VIII was already under enormous pressure from Spain and her powerful faction in the Roman Curia for a perceived lack of support for the Catholic cause in the Thirty Years War (with talk of the invasion of the Papal States and even the deposition of the pope). While Galileo was cleared of any involvement (he had been linked to it), others close to Galileo were not so lucky. And the aggressive response of Urban VIII to both threats would weaken Galileo’s influence in Rome (e.g., Galileo’s good friend Ciampoli, who was an intimate of Urban VIII, would be exiled, never to return) and create a less than congenial atmosphere for the reception of the book when it came out.
CWR: Is it fair to say that while many people try to present the Galileo Affair in rather stark, black-and-white strokes, the entire matter is far more grey, so to speak, and also far more colorful—that is, complex and intriguing? How much of the entire conflict was a matter of science vs. Church teaching, and how much of it was a matter of power and personalities?
Fr. Scotti: History is always messy and complex because people are messy and complex, and the Galileo Affair particularly so. But we like our simple dichotomies and sound bites because it makes everything easier to understand, more satisfying and more under our control. While issues of science and religion do play their part, things could have ended far differently. The personalities of the major players were of major significance. If Galileo, with his vehement personality and confidence in his power of persuasion, had not gone to Rome to force the issue, it is very likely that there would have been no condemnation of Copernicus in 1616—which sets the stage for the trial of 1633.
We see the same over-confidence in his persuasive power (and in his friendship with Urban VIII) in his writing a book which he must have known was the not the book Urban VIII had allowed him to write. Urban VIII, with his extreme touchiness and need for control, was the not a man to play with. While Urban VIII had serious reasons for his negative response to the book (the skeptical attitude toward knowledge which I discuss in my book), one cannot ignore the profound sense of betrayal, of being used, that also animates him.
CWR: How was Galileo viewed by the public during his life? And how did he become the poster child, so to speak, for science over against the supposedly superstitious and anti-scientific Catholic Church?
Fr. Scotti: In his lifetime, he was seen, as we would say now, as a “superstar,” as some larger than life figure, and like our modern “rock star” he was treated with deference even by popes and leading clerics. He was certainly not seen, except for some Dominicans and their supporters, as someone outside the Catholic fold, and certainly not as some secret skeptic as some more recent commentators would like us to believe. It is really with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that we start to see him become a club with which to beat the Church, and in the nineteenth century he becomes a major “martyr of science” in the “warfare” literature whose goal is to discredit the Church and remove her as a cultural factor.
CWR: What are some of the biggest errors or misconceptions you hope your book with correct and dispel?
Fr. Scotti: While I did not write the book to correct misconceptions but to tell a story, it does bother me to see historical errors and I hope this book will correct some. The biggest misconception I hope to correct is the absurd belief (which seems almost impossible to eradicate from much of popular culture) that the Church has been the enemy of reason and science when it has been in fact one of the greatest promoters of both. If I can help do that then I think my time in writing this book has been well spent.